'We're really struggling': British farmers pushed to brink by 'shocking' levels of floods

Split image. Left image: Peter Gardiner. Right image: A general view of flooded grazing marshland on Peter Gardiner's farm in Norfolk.
Peter Gardiner (pictured), whose farm is based in Norfolk, said '80%' of his grazing marshlands were underwater at the peak of the flooding. Credit: Peter Gardiner

By James Gray, ITV News Multimedia Producer

"I know farmers in this area who are really struggling at this moment just because they do not know what to do," says Peter Gardiner, a Norfolk-based farmer.

"Eighty percent of my grazing marshes with cattle on went under water in probably a six or seven day period. Most of the arable land didn't flood, but was too wet to do anything with."

Mr Gardiner told ITV News some of his land has been flooded since last October, adding that, while farmers are used to dealing with wet weather, there has been "shocking" levels of rainfall over autumn and winter.

His story is one that thousands of farmers are currently describing across the UK, where acres upon acres of land, usually set aside for arable farming, have been submerged under water - in some places up to three metres deep.

The UK has already experienced ten named storms in the 2023-24 season - only one short of the record (11) set in 2015-16 when the Met Office first started naming storms.

These storms - such as October's Storm Babet and Henk in January - combined with periods of intense rainfall have decimated farmland and left some farmers concerned they might miss out on an entire cropping season.

Data from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) showed that soil moisture levels - or how saturated the ground was - at the majority of sites it monitors were high or above capacity in its two most recent monthly reports (January 2024 and December 2023).

This was despite rainfall in January being "close to average" because previous months of heavy rain meant that the ground had not been given an opportunity to dry out.

The Met Office, meanwhile, said that although February 2024 was the warmest for England and Wales since records began in 1836, it was also the wettest for some parts of the former - including East Anglia which saw 106.4mm of rainfall across the month .

"As farmers we are dictated by the weather, our whole business revolves around the weather," Mr Gardiner said.

"So, we're used to it to a point, but not to this extreme. It's been a difficult year and we've had wet years before, but the speed and the way it happened this year is the concerning bit not just for the here and now but going forward from a business point of view.

"You can't mitigate against that. There's no insurance. You can't insure against any of it from a financial point of view."

Mr Gardiner says some of his land has been constantly flooded since October. Credit: Peter Gardiner

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has blamed cuts to the Environment Agency's (EA) annual flood defence maintenance budget as to why the impacts of flooding have become more pronounced in recent years.

NFU Flooding Policy Adviser Zoe Moore cited a report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which found a £34 million deficit in the EA's budget for 2022-23.

She said farmers could be left facing a "really difficult financial decision" as early as next autumn if flooding continues at the current rate.

Last month, the NFU's outgoing president Minette Batters told the organisation's annual conference that extreme weather, such as flooding, was one of a number of challenges facing farmers.

Her successor, Tom Bradshaw, has since urged the government to deliver extra support for farmers, saying in a letter to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt it is "vital that our country's food producers have the business confidence to continue producing climate-friendly, nutritious food long-term".

He implored ministers to maintain existing flood defences to be able to "better accommodate regular extreme rainfall events and allow for swifter recovery from flooding on agricultural land".

The government has said some farmers, depending on their eligibility, could be in line to receive up to £25,000 in support grants after the severe weather brought about by Storms Babet and Henk, but application windows for this have yet to open.

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The prospect of reduced yields for British farmers has raised some concerns about potential knock-on impacts for consumers at the supermarket.

David Eudall, Director of Economics and Analysis at the Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), told ITV News a similar weather pattern in the autumn and winter of 2019-20 led to a 24% reduction in the planted area for the harvest of 2020.

He added the AHDB is expecting "something of a similar magnitude" when farmers come to harvest their crops later this year.

But the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has moved to reassure consumers that any impacts to product availability or pricing will be limited.

"Supply chains are under pressure from a variety of reasons including extreme weather conditions," Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the BRC, said in a statement.

"Despite these challenges, retailers have continued to deliver excellent service for their customers and are working hard to limit price increases."

Flooding across UK farmland is expected to lead to around a quarter reduction in the planted area for 2024's harvest. Credit: Peter Gardiner

In the face of extreme weather, some farmers are now turning to agri-environmental schemes to guarantee a source of income from their land, Ms Moore said.

The move is something that Mr Gardiner says he is already employing, planting so-called 'energy crops' - such as maize - to diversify his harvest.

But he warned that not every farmer will necessarily be in a position to follow suit.

"A lot of land will be taken out of production this year or out of food production and either go into energy crops, agri-environment schemes or just be left bear because either farmers are not prepared to take the risk and lose more money or they just physically cannot do anything with the land."

He added that, even with changes to farming practices, were current levels of flooding to become a yearly occurrence it would force many farmers, including himself, to consider their long-term future.

"You run a business, that's the question I have to ask myself: 'How do I run a beef herd with the uncertainty of every year or every other year I may have this problem?'. That's a problem that business would not be able to withstand over a long period of time."

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